By Kyle Beery
Who doesn’t love a good Cinderella story?
Well, 2006 UConn probably didn’t. Kansas and Pitt certainly didn’t in 2011. Florida Gulf Coast made sure Georgetown and San Diego State didn’t in 2013. And we all know Michigan state hated the underdogs in 2015.
But if it’s against not your team, you probably love a good March Cinderella. From upsets and buzzer beaters, to unknown stars and wild personalities. They’re what make March, March.
Here’s a look at some of the teams and players to keep an eye on as conference tournaments start, parlaying right into the NCAA Tournament in less than two weeks.
It would be wrong to talk about mid-majors in 2018 and start anywhere but Reno, Nevada. Eric Musselman has a second-weekend team on his hands.
The Wolf Pack are arguably the best mid-major team in the country, right there with last years national runner-up, Gonzaga.
Where to begin? How about the Martin twins. Caleb and Cody Martin are two of the best players in the country that you may not have heard of. Caleb leads the team in scoring (19.6 PPG), while Cody averages 14 PPG and a team-high 4.4 assists. They always know where each other is, and they are both capable of scoring from all areas of the floor.
Then you’ve got Jordan Caroline (17.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG), who is an NBA talent. Kendall Stephens is capable of a 30-point night. This is just a good, solid, deep team. Nevada won its second straight Mountain West title and has quality wins over Rhode Island and Boise State (twice). The Wolf Pack are a combined 10 points away from having two more resume-boosting wins against TCU and Texas Tech, having lost a pair of close road games in early December.
This team is fun to watch, especially if you like scoring — they’ve put up more than 90 points in eight games and are 10th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, scoring 120 points per 100 possessions. Just remember this team when you’re filling out your bracket, especially if they get matched up with a lackluster defensive team.
South Dakota State & Mike Daum
You may remember the Jackrabbits’ Mike Daum from a year ago. The 6-foot-9 forward broke the 30-point mark 11 times — including a 51-point outing — last season and led the Jackrabitts to a Summit League Tournament title and a 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The ceiling — and the expectations — are a little higher for this team this year. Daum averaged 23.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game en route to his second straight Summit League Player of the Year award. SDSU is certainly going to be a potential upset looming in the NCAA Tournament. I have them projected as a 12-seed in my latest bracketology projections.
Daum has scored more than 30 points 11 times this year again, and there’s still a lot of ball to play. But it’s not just Daum that makes South Dakota State a force to be reckoned with. Senior guard Skyler Flatten (64.6) ranks in the top 30 in the country in effective field goal percentage (eFG% = (FG + 0.5 * 3P) / FGA). David Jenkins, Jr. won the Summit League Freshman of the Year and T.J. Otzelberger was the conference’s Coach of the Year.
Chris Clemons is another name you may remember from last season. The quick, flashy 5-foot-9 guard from Campbell is raising eyebrows — even if those eyebrows only belong to Mark Titus.
Campbell only finished fourth in the Big South and may not even get to the Big Dance, but you should take the time to watch the Fighting Camels in the conference tournament, especially if you’re into mid-major tournaments like I am.
Clemons is a scoring machine. Averaging 24 PPG, his high mark of the regular season was 42 against Liberty, and he failed to hit 20 points just seven times all year — only twice in conference play. The guy may be tiny, but his range is huge. He can hit from anywhere. It will be fun to watch and see if he can help the Camels navigate through the conference tournament and earn the program’s second NCAA Tournament bid in school history.
Note: Campbell opens the Big South Tournament Thursday on ESPN3 against Liberty. You should watch Chris Clemons.
Vermont & Trae Bell-Haynes
Trae Bell-Haynes declared for the NBA draft after last season, but returned for his senior season after he found out his prospects of getting drafted weren’t too good. And it’s a good thing he did. He led the Catamounts to a second straight America East title, and they were a one-point loss to Hartford away from running the tables in conference for a second straight year.
The do-it-all Bell-Haynes (14.9 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.9 APG), senior Drew Urquhart (10.7 PPG) and junior Ernie Duncan (11.5 PPG, 41 3PT%) were pretty good for the Catamounts all year. And the team just got more dangerous with the return of its second-best player, sophomore forward Anthony Lamb.
Lamb was averaging 17 points and six rebounds per game before fracturing his foot near the end of non-conference play. The fact that Vermont was able to run train without him tells us this: they might be even better than last year. While UVM didn’t pull off an upset against Purdue like many thought they might, the Catamounts were one of the strongest mid-major teams in the country.
Back at it again this year, they don’t quite have an eye-popping win, but Vermont has given some tough games against tournament-worthy teams, including Marquette, St. Bonaventure, and of course at Kentucky in the season opener.
Middle Tennessee State
The Blue Raiders were the darlings of the 2016 NCAA Tournament when they knocked off No. 2-seed Michigan State in the first round. Last year, they earned a 12-seed and beat Minnesota, before falling to Butler in the second round.
The ceiling just keeps getting bigger for Kermit Davis’s team. Some bracketology projections have the 24th-ranked Blue Raiders as high as a No. 9-seed. While I most recently had them as an 11, they certainly could climb that high. MTSU is without a doubt one of the strongest mid-major teams in the country this year, despite losing Reggie Upshaw and JaCorey Williams to graduation.
Giddy Potts (13.1 PPG, 39 3PT%) is still doing his thing, but newcomer Nick King has stolen the show, averaging 21.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game as a stretch-four. The transfer from Alabama, by way of Memphis, received high praise before the season even started, and he has the Blue Raiders on top of C-USA for a third straight year.
You can count on the Blue Raiders to be a trendy upset pick, and you can probably count on them to win at least one game in the NCAAs. Even if they slip up in the conference tournament, this team has probably done enough to earn an at-large bid, owning four wins against quadrants 1+2, plus three of their losses were within single digits against RPI top 30 teams.
New Mexico State
Admittedly, the hype around the Aggies isn’t as high as it was a few weeks ago. NMSU got of to a 10-0 start in the WAC and had won 16 of 17, including wins over Miami and Illinois, with the lone loss coming by five points against USC on a neutral floor.
Since then, though, the Aggies have cooled off a little bit with two losses within one of the weaker low-level conferences in the country. Nonetheless, NMSU is still pretty solid, and worth keeping on your radar. Senior guard Zach Lofton gets nearly 20 PPG, while Jemerrio Jones is second in the country with 12.7 RPG.
My advice on the Aggies: don’t sleep on them, but don’t get overly anxious to pick them as an upset, especially if they’re any lower than a 12-seed, matching up with a strong opponent.
There are three very fun players to watch in the Southern Conference this year, two of whom earned Player of the Year awards:
- Fletcher Magee – Wofford – Magee scored 27 points in the Terriers’ signature win over North Carolina back in December. The SOCON Player of the Year, as voted by the conference’s coaches, averaged 22.3 PPG and shot 44 percent from three-point range, knocking down a season-high 11 3s at Mercer and scored a seas0n-best 45 points against Chattanooga.
- Desonta Bradford – ETSU – The media’s SOCON Player of the Year has a significantly less scoring output (15.5 PPG) than Magee, but he makes up for it elsewhere, averaging 5.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.9 steals per game.
- Devin Sibley – Furman – Sibley was named to the All-SOCON First Team despite a bit of a downturn from last season, when he won conference Player of the Year. The kid can hoop. He can shoot from deep, and he can drive the lane. Fun to watch.
Now, you’ll notice that none of these players’ teams won the SOCON regular season title. That crown went to UNC-Greensboro. The Spartans earned the 1-seed in the conference tournament, backed by Francis Alonzo, a Spaniard who shot better than 42 percent from three-point range.
This will be a very fun conference tournament to watch, and the winner just might have a shot at an upset in the Big Dance.
Jock Landale & Saint Mary’s
What an interesting season it’s been for Randy Bennett’s Gaels. They were two close neutral-court holiday tournament losses away from a perfect non-conference schedule. They started the season 24-2 in a relatively decent West Coast Conference before taking back-to-back losses against Gonzaga (not a bad loss) and San Francisco (indeed, a bad loss).
It’s a little bit sketchy for me to think that this team could be left out of the NCAA Tournament. No, they didn’t have a very tough non-conference schedule; no, they don’t have a plethora of eye-popping wins; and no, they should not have lost to Washington State or San Fran.
But yes; they did beat Gonzaga, a sure tournament team; yes, they are 11-3 away from home; and most of all, yes: they do have Jock Landale.
And that might be the most important thing. The 6-foot-11 monster from Australia has the highest offensive rating on KenPom, and is the clear frontrunner for KenPom’s player of the year, per analytics and metrics. Landale ranks in the country’s top 20 for points (21.5 PPG), rebounds (10.2) and FG% (64.2).
The kid is good. NBA good. And he’s got a good cast around him, including sharpshooting sophomore Tanner Krebs and assist-machine Emmett Naar. The Aussie trio is pretty darned good, even if the Gaels’ resume isn’t overloaded with great wins. Don’t let the negative bubble talk fool you — Saint Mary’s could make some noise this March.
Staying in the WCC, I close with Gonzaga. A lot of people — myself included — thought they would suffer a bit of a setback following last year’s run to the national title game. No more Nigel Williams-Goss, Przemek Karnowski or Jordan Matthews, their top three scorers from last season.
But that hasn’t been the case, as we should have all expected; Mark Few is on the cusp of his 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, and the Zags have won at least one game in all but three of those seasons. He just reloads every year, and they continue to be a solid, consistent squad. Don’t know why we expected anything different this year.
Jonathan Williams leads the team in points (16.8 PPG) and assists (4.7 APG), and is a close second in rebounds (6.0 RPG). He has led the Bulldogs to 27 wins — Gonzaga has now had at least 25 in 11 straight seasons — including quality wins over Ohio State, Creighton and Saint Mary’s.
Gonzaga is 13th in AdjOE (120.4) and 25th in AdjDE (96.5). They figure to be in the 3-5-seed range, depending on what happens in the WCC Tournament. It wouldn’t be a bad pick to have the Zags back in the second weekend, as they’ve done each of the last three seasons.
And, oh yeah, Rui Hachimura is a man.
You can find the entire conference tournament schedule here, via SB Nation, so you can keep tabs on all these teams over the next two weeks and do some studying ahead of the Big Dance.